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How to Find a Therapist

Whether an adult or child needs therapy, finding the right therapist takes research, patience, and intuition.
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WebMD Feature

You need to find a therapist. Your life, your child, your marriage is suffering. But for many people, this task is daunting.

There's the alphabet soup of PhDs, PsyDs, MDs, MSs, and MSWs, not to mention all the labels -- psychiatrist, psychologist, marriage & family therapist, family counselor, licensed professional counselor, social worker.

It's true; all these therapists provide mental health services. But each brings different training, experience, insights, and character to the table. How can you find a therapist who is right for your needs?

Take heart, for the search will be worth the effort. "A good therapist, however you find them, is gold," Don Turner, MD, a private practice psychiatrist for 30 years in Atlanta, tells WebMD. "A good therapist is nonjudgmental, accepting, and patient. Otherwise, our patients are just getting what they grew up with."

First, let's look at the professional labels:

Psychiatrists: These are doctors who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of mental or psychiatric illnesses. They have medical training and are licensed to prescribe drugs. They are also trained in psychotherapy, or "talk" therapy, which aims to change a person's behaviors or thought patterns.

Psychologists: These are doctoral degree (PhD or PsyD) experts in psychology. They study the human mind and human behavior and are also trained in counseling, psychotherapy, and psychological testing -- which can help uncover emotional problems you may not realize you have.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is the psychologist's main treatment tool -- to help people identify and change inaccurate perceptions that they may have of themselves and the world around them. Psychologists are not licensed to prescribe medications. However, they can refer you to a psychiatrist if necessary.

Social Workers: These are specialists that provide social services in health-related settings that now are governed by managed care organizations. Their goal is to enhance and maintain a person's psychological and social functioning -- they provide empathy and counseling on interpersonal problems. Social workers help people function at their best in their environment, and they help people deal with relationships and solve personal and family problems.

Licensed Professional Counselors. These counselors are required by state licensure laws to have at least a master's degree in counseling and 3,000 hours of post-master's experience. They are either licensed or certified to independently diagnose and treat mental and emotional disorders, says W. Mark Hamilton, PhD, executive director of the American Mental Health Counselors Association.

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